Friday, October 29, 2010

Cotton research, cotton landscapes

In the last few days, we talked to a number of people at the regional cotton research institute, just outside of town. More interesting than I thought.

A research station, like this one, was basically a kolkhoz + research institute. That meant that budgets were partly coming from the state (for research) and partly generated by the collective (the farm). Decisions on improvement, expansion, and other planning- related things were taken more or less like in a kolkhoz, with the director of the institute in a role similar to that of the rais, the kolkhoz leader. Like a kolkhoz, a research station could be very extensive, and could be seen as de facto local government.

In this case, the station at its peak covered over 600ha (making it smaller than an average kolkhoz) and included a village and a plethora of technical, scientific, and farm buildings. Its location was not perfect, close to a growing city and dotted with marshlands, ponds, lakes, and tugai floodplain forest, but a sustained reclamation campaign, lasting until the late 80's, turned it into a model farm. In the last decade, the cooperation with our research project, with ZEF/ Unesco has been intense. Only recently, outsiders were allowed to settle in the village, hard to avoid with Urgench so close.

When the Soviets came, they were serious about cotton, and already in 1922, right after arrival, they established a cotton research station in Khiva. It was moved to Urgench in 1929. New varieties had to be developed; the known ones preferred warmer and wetter regions, like the American South, the main rival in the eyes of the Soviets. At the Urgench site, different directors brought their own visions of the perfect cotton plant and the perfect cotton landscape to the model farm. Varieties like Khorezm 126, 127 and 150 were developed here, suited to the specificities of the region. Farmers were informed and advised.

We talked to an 88-year old gentleman, still busy with the development of ever more productive cotton varieties. In a slightly delapidated concrete building, housing, among other things, a library devoted to cotton, he showed us various cotton plants, and told a story of continuous pressure to improve, with different requirements taking precedence at different times. For the Soviets, productivity was everything, and nobody paid too much attention to the cost of inputs, of labor, land and water. With independence, the loss of Soviet subsidies, and the seeping in of market principles, accounting practices changed, and everything taken for granted, suddenly had a price tag. Efficiency and sustainability became real concerns.

That implied a reduction of 'agro- technical works', a catch- all for everything involving machinery. New cotton varieties are supposed to require less water, less fertilizer, less ditches and seasonal canals. The cotton landscape now is reportedly less messy, less fragmented, and more stable because of that. On the other hand, the countryside is more multifunctional now than in the past, with large cotton or wheat parcels and smaller vegetable plots alternating in many areas; moving rice fields and their levies change the topography almost yearly. In other words, the cotton landscape might be more stable, but many places are not cotton landscapes anymore.

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